Wine Doesn't Make Itself
Has our singular focus on the expression of a place devalued the actual “making” inherent to all great wines?
March 14, 2018 | story: ZACHARY SUSSMAN | photograph: Erik Castro
“We make a lazy man’s wine, since we do nothing,” proclaimed Louis-Antoine Luyt in a recent interview. The Burgundy-born winemaker, now living in Chile, credits the motto to natural wine legend, Marcel Lapierre, with whom he worked five harvests.
Comments like this will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the natural movement’s minimal-intervention gospel, which is built upon a singular premise: that the most “authentic” wine is that which has had the least “done” to it. Such a wine, the thinking goes, reveals the faintest possible trace of the winemaker’s hand—and, by extension, the most direct expression of the vineyard or terroir. As such, the role of winemaker is reduced to that of shepherd, or guide, whose sole responsibility consists in ushering the wine along its merry way from grape to bottle.
Over recent years, this mentality has given rise to a handful of industry catchphrases. “Wine is made in the vineyard,” is among the most pervasive; ditto “we let the wine make itself,” which has been cited by such venerable winemakers as the late Serge Hochar of Lebanon’s storied Château Musar. As far as myths go, the “shepherd vigneron” is a persuasive one, feeding into an increasingly popular pastoral fetish. It’s also a myth that, in my opinion, has outlived its usefulness.
Even those of us who prefer our wines to be made with a lo-fi approach know full well that wine doesn’t make itself. Even the most minimally invasive scenario still involves skillful mediation. David Lillie, of New York’s Chambers Street Wines, sums this up well, recalling a quote from the Jura winemaker Pierre Overnoy: “Making natural wine isn’t so easy—you don’t just decide not to add sulfur and then go take a vacation.”
Given the considerable expertise and artistry the job requires, it might appear odd that Luyt and so many of his peers display such an aversion to taking credit for their work. As PUNCH senior contributing editor, Jon Bonné, recently quipped to me, “You’d never hear a serious fromager tell you that ‘the cheese is made in the cow.'” Now that the naturalist movement is beginning to enter the mainstream, I can’t help but wonder if one of its unacknowledged legacies has been to devalue the actual “making” involved in winemaking.
According to Bonné, today’s anxiety about wine as a “made” thing originated in the 1980s and ‘90s, an era defined by point-chasing “flying winemakers” and consulting enologists, who reshaped the identities of many of the world’s viticultural areas, leaving us with a glut of “cult wines” formulated to fit a ready-made commercial mold. The natural wine movement, with its emphasis on better farming and celebration of the vineyard, signaled a necessary corrective. The idea was to return wine to its agricultural essence—something that comes from the earth, as opposed to a luxury good or commodity.
“In a way, what we’re talking about is the curse of the enologists,” Bonné explains. “The reactionary response to the rise of enology—to this sense that there was too much winemaking going on—was, for many people, to turn their attention to the vineyard and say, ‘Well, we repudiate all of that, and we’re not going to discuss it anymore.’”
This paradigm shift shaped the values of a whole generation. That said, when I hear Bonné speak of “a new wave of wannabe winemakers who love the ideals of natural wine, but have no idea what they’re doing,” I worry that what began as a rejection of overly-technological winemaking has since become (at least, in certain circles) a rejection of process and technique in general. “I suspect that if you look at the current cohort of natural winemakers, you will find more of them than in the past who have this very tortured relationship with the idea of winemaking,” Bonné says. “In fact, many have just distanced themselves from it altogether.”
To be clear, it’s one thing for a genuinely gifted and influential winemaker like Lapierre, who exercised meticulous care in the practice of his craft, to humble-brag about how little he’s required to do in the cellar or joke that his wines were “made by the lazy and tight-fisted.” When applied more generally, however, this ethos entrenches a false dichotomy between “work in the vineyard” and “work in the cellar,” both of which are necessary to create a great wine. Absent the latter, problems quickly arise. One of the tragic consequences of this overly democratic “the wine makes itself” mentality is how frequently it serves as an excuse for sloppy and uninformed winemaking. The result? A rash of flawed, unhygienic wines—which, over the years, have given unfair fodder to critics eager to dismiss the movement as a whole.
What’s needed is a more nuanced way to frame the conversation, one that reexamines the winemaker’s relationship to his or her discipline and takes into account the complex reality of how wine is really made.
“Anyone who is making good wine, regardless of their approach, is exercising rigor,” says Scott Frank of Portland’s Bow & Arrow Winery, a small négociant operation that sources fruit from across Oregon’s Willamette Valley. “While I applaud the impetus to put the emphasis on the vineyard, rather than the winemaker, at some point that impulse over-steered. It almost completely removed the posture of the human being from the equation, and the rigor that goes into trying to capture and preserve the expression of the fruit or the vineyard.”
Although Frank considers himself squarely “within the ‘natural’ camp,” modeling his wines after some of the Loire Valley’s canonical natural producers, he takes a pragmatic view of his role as a craftsperson. “Of course, the wine is going to be informed by the raw materials—the variety, the site and the farming—and it’s always my first goal to let those elements come through,” he says. “But at the same time, it would be completely disingenuous of me to say that the wines with the Bow & Arrow label aren’t dramatically imprinted with my personal feelings and my general posture toward wine.”
In other words, it’s impossible to remove the winemaker from the equation—nor should that necessarily be the objective. As author and lifelong champion of natural wine, Alice Feiring, recently told me: “A person makes the wine; it’s always going to be their expression.” Which means that there will always be some level of artifice involved. To acknowledge and accept this would allow us to ditch the tired ideological binary—the whole circular “natural or not” debate—and re-contextualize the conversation around the actual practices that determine what any given wine will be.
Of course, that’s not nearly as romantic as the trope of the rustic shepherd presiding over some miraculous case of divine intervention. Nor does discussing Brix or enzymes or maceration times make for particularly sexy journalism, or help sell bottles on the floor of a hip restaurant or neighborhood wine shop. When I asked Jared Brandt—winemaker at California’s Donkey & Goat winery, who also works in a natural manner—to delve deeper into the specific methods and techniques he employs in the cellar, he issued a warning: “I’ll run you through the process, but it will probably bore you.”
Once you begin to break it down, however, the seemingly infinite set of choices and decisions that arise at each stage, all of which must be carefully considered and negotiated, is genuinely astonishing—and, for me, only enhances the enjoyment of the end result. Just take the basic act of pressing the grapes once they’ve come in from harvest. What would appear to be a relatively straightforward procedure—crushing grapes into grape juice—is anything but.
“First off, before we even load the grapes into the press, we sort them, which not everyone chooses to do, and then you have a slew of decisions on how to use the press, which are all really impactful, especially on the whites,” Brandt explains. He continues to describe “the various programs you can use to increase the pressure on the grapes,” specifying his preferred method of “slowly increasing the pressure, holding it for five minutes and then increasing it again, which is one way to get the extraction you want.” Then there’s the matter of how many turns the press should complete—“I’m not a big fan of having to press-turn, actually, since I think you get flavors that aren’t as interesting or consistent with what we want”—and how long to run it.
Unglamorous though they might be, these choices are deliberate actions (or sometimes inactions) that ultimately cohere in a creative interpretation of grape, soil and climate. What comes into focus is a portrait of the winemaker neither as a passive shepherd, letting the wine “make itself,” nor a heavy-handed technician, but as a receptive translator, remaining as faithful as possible to the “original text” of the vineyard while invariably imprinting it with his or her own voice.
“When you really think about it, even within that metaphor of the shepherd, the whole problem is contained,” Brandt says. “I’m sure we don’t realize all the work that goes into a shepherd’s job. I mean, okay, you’re just guiding your flock from point ‘a’ to point ‘b,’ but you still have to protect it from predators—you still have to do a whole lot.”